Honoring History: Revenue Cutter Pickering

Written by William H. Thiesen, PhD, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Historians believe this to be a rendering of the Revenue Cutter Pickering. If so, it is the earliest known rendering of a U.S. revenue cutter. (Coast Guard Historian’s Office)

Historians believe this to be a rendering of the Revenue Cutter Pickering. If so, it is the earliest known rendering of a U.S. revenue cutter. (Coast Guard Historian’s Office)

The story of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Pickering is one of the many lost chapters in Coast Guard history. This is not a story about a cutter, but about her brave commander and crew.

Between 1797 and 1801, the United States and Revolutionary France fought an undeclared naval war called the Quasi War. Angered that the United States had remained neutral in the French struggle with Great Britain, France issued letters of marque, empowering French privateers to prey on unarmed American merchantmen. With many Navy warships still under construction, American strategists called on the Revenue Cutter Service, one of the Coast Guard’s predecessors, to defend American shipping and fight the French.

Named in honor of then Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, cutter Pickering was ready to serve in the summer of 1798. Pickering incorporated a Baltimore Clipper-style hull and expensive copper sheathing to keep her wooden planks free from shipworms and marine growth. Her sleek sail rig carried two headsails and two raked masts fitted with fore-and-aft sails and double topsails. Mariners of the day referred to her as a brig. Pickering’s huge spread of canvas and hydrodynamic hull gave her the speed necessary to overtake the swiftest privateers.

Boston native Benjamin Hiller assumed command of Pickering after sailing nearly a year under other commanders. Hiller served as first mate through 1798, then received a Navy lieutenant’s commission in late January 1799. In May, the Treasury Department transferred control of Pickering to the fledgling U.S. Navy and Hiller assumed command of her in June. In his initial orders, Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert wished Hiller “great success and many opportunities to distinguish yourself.”

Lt. Hiller established quite a reputation, “distinguishing” himself in a little over a year of cruising and convoy duty. He commanded Pickering in re-capturing at least ten American, British and Dutch prize vessels; taking an armed French merchantman; and capturing five heavily armed French privateers.

Based on naval documents, this list indicates the record of success for the Revenue Cutter Pickering during its service in the Quasi War with France.

Based on naval documents, this list indicates the record of success for the Revenue Cutter Pickering during its service in the Quasi War with France.

In early October 1799, the French sent the most powerful privateer in the West Indies on a mission to take Pickering. With between fourteen and eighteen nine-and six-pound cannon, and double-manned with between 175 and 250 men, l’Egypte Conquise out-gunned and out-manned Pickering’s defenses of only fourteen four-pounders and a crew of less than one hundred. Termed by witnesses as “severe,” the brutal nine-hour gun duel occurred on October 8, 1799. The warships fought for five hours, broke off the firefight for an hour, and re-commenced the battle for three more hours. Exhausted and heavily damaged, with numerous dead and dying on her bloody decks, the privateer struck her colors and surrendered. Pickering’s epic battle with l’Egypte Conquise serves as a testament to Hiller’s leadership and his crew’s bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.After refitting late in the summer of 1800, Hiller and his crew boarded Pickering at Newcastle, Delaware, for another Caribbean tour.

It would be the last time they set foot on dry land.

In September, storm clouds formed on the equator and a tropical storm described by the newspapers as an “equinoctial gale,” swept north, swirled over the Bahamas, and grew quickly into a raging hurricane. Cruising in the maelstrom’s path, USS Insurgent’s top-heavy masts and numerous heavy cannon made her vulnerable to the storm’s howling winds and towering seas. As if in an instant, the seas opened up and swallowed Insurgent and her crew of 340 men without a trace.

The storm then overtook Pickering and her sister cutter Scammel, both on war patrols. On board Scammel, the crew jettisoned cannon and anchors in an effort to ride out the storm. As mountains of water avalanched on board Pickering, some men ran for cover and some tried to save the cutter, while others were washed helplessly overboard. Pickering and her crew had faced the worst the enemy had to offer, but they faced impossible odds in this fight with Mother Nature. After the maelstrom passed, just one cutter remained. But it was the Scammel, not the Pickering, which lived to fight another day. Hiller had probably served during the worst of the torrent until he washed overboard or his cutter capsized.

This illustration of Revenue Cutter Pickering’s sister cutter Eagle (foreground) illustrates the sort of naval activities carried out by the cutters during the Quasi War with France. (Picture by marine artist Peter Rindlisbacher)

This illustration of Revenue Cutter Pickering’s sister cutter Eagle (foreground) illustrates the sort of naval activities carried out by the cutters during the Quasi War with France. (Picture by marine artist Peter Rindlisbacher)

With the sudden disappearance of Pickering, rumors spread that the French had massacred Hiller and his crew in an enemy takeover of Curacao. The massacre never happened and by the time newspapers printed the story in October, the ship, skipper and crew had been gone for a month. An article printed in December reported the more likely aftermath. According to the story, “a large copper-bottomed brig, with quarter-boards and a range of ports, was seen bottom upwards” by a merchantman sailing through the 23rd parallel after the storm.

That was the last anyone saw the Pickering.

During the Quasi War, U.S. naval authorities considered Benjamin Hiller one of their finest combat commanders. But now, over 200 years later, he is a forgotten cutterman from a forgotten war. No portrait or rendering commemorates his life and no obituary or grave marker memorializes his death. Had Pickering survived that September hurricane, he might have achieved greater glory and joined the pantheon of early American naval figures, such as Truxtun, Decatur and Perry. However, like many heroes of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services, Hiller’s exploits and those of the Pickering remain largely unknown.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,